Olivia Cothren graduated from the Cooperstown Graduate Program and now works at the Historic House Trust in New York City. The Historic House Trust has begun to discuss ways to make museums and historic houses more accessible to the public. I felt many of the ideas in this discussion also reflect issues libraries face. Below are some questions I asked Olivia about increasing public engagement in museums and libraries and the role of students in this process.
The Anarchist Guide to House Museums is a Twitter and Linked-In conversation led by the Historic House Trust to address and change the perception that museums are “boring…socially out of touch… and expensive.” I think these are perceptions that some people apply to libraries too. Why do you think this is a persistent perception of museums and libraries?
The best ideas about community engagement are often the simplest. Having visitors post sticky-notes with their opinions around the house museum, hosting legislative breakfasts for elected officials, encouraging instead of banning our visitors’ use of cell phones and cameras to increase social media presence, partnering with local non-arts organizations, transforming one room in a historic house into a community room to host local events — all of these are great ideas and none are particularly difficult to actually do. It’s the willingness to change and time constraints that are often the greater hurdles. But it’s been very encouraging to hear about successful community engagement efforts in our Anarchist discussions.One of the concerns I saw voiced on the Linked-In discussion was that this approach could turn a historic house tour into a “circus” and take away from the museum’s main job to educate the public. This concern has been in echoed in the New York City Public Library, where there is worry that plans to renovate the main public library building will change the library from a renowned research institution to a social space more like an internet cafe or coffee shop. How should we balance traditional approaches to museums and libraries with other more radical approaches?
I’m not as familiar with the library field, but visitation to historic house has been on a steep decline for years. Traditionalists can try to stall change or criticize modern updates, but the obvious truth is that our methods have been failing. What is the point of preserving a building or a collection if no one comes to see or use it? Museums and libraries can’t just operate in a vacuum or a time capsule and expect to thrive; we need to evolve along with our community. In our Anarchist Guide, we call for a holistic re-evaluation of historic house museums and question even fundamental tenets of the field. I might not be the best person to ask about balance between the traditional and the radical because I don’t really think of anything as too radical anymore! I’m sure the growth of e-readers/death of print “problem” is old hat to you library folks and it seems like it is inspiring a similar field-wide reassessment of your place in society from here on out. To me, the new NYPL plans present a logical and useful new future for the library. It’s unfortunate that people are opposing making it a more public place that more people will be able to use?
In some ways it seems students are in a unique position to change traditional perceptions of museums and libraries. In what ways can Museum Studies and GLIS students positively influence change and innovation?
What was your favorite Museum Studies class?
What do you think? What lessons do libraries and museums have to learn from each other? How can we make ourselves more accessible to our patrons? What is the role students play in this discussion? Join in the conversation- @hhtnyc, Anarchist Guide to Museums Historic House LinkedIn page and the HLS blog comment board!